NBA Power Rankings: Part Three

And now for the final installment of the NBA Power Rankings! If you’ve missed Part One or Part Two, give them a look.

10: Phoenix Suns

Feb 18, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; Phoenix Suns guard Goran Dragic (1) drives to the basket during the second half against the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center. The Suns won 112-107 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Was Goran Dragic the biggest All-Star snub?
-I’d say yes. I’ll go even further and say that Goran Dragic a top ten MVP candidate right now. Even if you may think I’m completely bat-crap crazy, the Suns should have been rewarded with an All-Star for their insane start to the season, which no honest man could say that he saw coming. They were a nice little story back in the beginning of December when they were 9-9. When they went 10-2 in December and entered the new year 19-11, they started to raise some eyebrows. At the start of February when they were ten games above .500 it was absolutely shocking. Now, after the All-Star Break the Suns are 32-21 and it doesn’t seem totally off the wall anymore. If you look at all of the parts then sure, it’s definitely a little odd that this collection of guys are winning at the rate that they are. But if you sit down and watch the Suns it definitely makes sense. They play hard and play fast every night. In some ways they remind me of one of those no-huddle super-fast paced spread offenses in college football that is so effective just because they are constantly pushing the tempo. It’s a lot easier to give the credit to style of play and coaching than the roster because, well… just look at the roster!

Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe (hasn’t played a game since December 30th), Gerald Green, one Morris twin, the other Morris twin, Channing Frye, P.J. Tucker, one of the Plumlee brothers, Ish Smith, Archie Goodwin

Come on now! This team wasn’t supposed to win more than 25 games. They definitely weren’t supposed to crack the top ten in any kind of power rankings post All-Star Break unless it was ranking which teams would be making the most blatant attempt at tanking over the next two months. Now we can talk about the Suns as a top ten team in the league. .

9: Dallas Mavericks
Does Dirk still have enough in the tank for a Mavericks playoff run?
I saw the Dallas Mavericks back in mid-November and I left the game thinking four things:

1: Beers are really expensive at American Airlines Arena
2: My shooting form is more textbook than Shawn Marion’s
3: Monta Ellis would beat me by 70 yards in a 100 yard sprint
4: Dirk Nowitzki still has it

Make no mistake, even after fifteen and a half seasons, “the big white guy who doesn’t miss” as my girlfriend called him, definitely has enough in the tank for the Mavericks to be a scary playoff matchup.

8: Golden State Warriors
Are the Warriors missing one piece?
They are probably missing something… I just can’t put my finger on what it is. I don’t know if it’s one big piece, a few secondary pieces, or maybe just toughness or an edge of some sort that they seem to lack on a nightly basis. Maybe they are missing all three, but then again maybe they aren’t missing anything. Here is my counter question to the question that I made up and asked myself… would anyone even being talking about the Warriors “issues” if they didn’t come into the season with enormous expectations after their surprising playoff success last season? Definitely not. We’d look at the Warriors as a good team in a very good conference that is capable of beating anybody, but also prone to some head-scratching losses. They are a team that is definitely flawed, but not so critically flawed that a major move to break up a young nucleus is necessary. The Warriors biggest problem is that they can’t sneak up on anybody anymore. Last season they were able to fly under the radar and their 31-23 was viewed as encouraging and pleasantly surprising. Their 32-22 start to the 2013-14 campaign is somehow seen as one that signifies regression. I don’t get the NBA sometimes.

Back to the original question—I don’t think it’s necessary that they do anything too drastic. As long as they make and enter the playoffs in good health then they have the potential to beat any team in a seven game series. You’ve heard the phrase “they’ve got a puncher’s chance,” haven’t you? Well that’s the way that you’d describe the Warriors even if you believe that they are critically flawed. Their outside shooting and home crowd—yes, I’ve decided to mention the home court even though the Warriors are a curiously mediocre 16-10 at home this year—give them a shot to spring an upset against anyone. But even the most patient analyst or fan is still left asking the question, “Well how quickly could this group go from interesting dark horse to odds on favorite?”

7: Houston Rockets
Is Dwight Howard still not fun to watch?
Still not fun to watch, and for whatever reason neither are the Rockets. I can watch only watch so much James Harden iso-ball and ‘Hack-A-Dwight’ before my head explodes. Let’s just hope it doesn’t happen when I watch them live at American Airlines Arena on March 16th.

6: Portland Trailblazers
Where is LaMarcus Aldridge on my MVP ballot?
Player A: 24.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 50% FG, .820 win percentage
Player B: 23.9 points, 11.4 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 47% FG, .679 win percentage
Player C: 27.4 points, 9.9 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 55% FG, .780 win percentage
Player D: 25.6 points, 12.2 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 52% FG, .802 win percentage
Player E: 24.4 points, 9.9 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 54% FG, .660 win percentage

Before we get to those four anonymous players, allow me to break down Aldridge’s MVP candidacy really quick. Right now the only two guys you would without question have ahead of Aldridge are Kevin Durant (having a career best and All-Time great season) and LeBron James (the generally agreed upon best player in the world, and he’s suddenly surging).  After those top two, if we were looking to construct a top ten list there are probably fifteen guys that would be worth mentioning and only three or four of them you could put on the same level as Aldridge. I give Aldridge the edge for 3rd on my MVP ballot for three reasons:

A: The Blazers were considered a fringe playoff team coming into this season. The use of the word “fringe” is no longer necessary. The Blazers will make the playoffs, and aside from the bench upgrades, the biggest reason why is Aldridge, who of all Trailblazers players has upped his per game averages the most from last season. Speaking of which…

B: The answer key for those players above:
Player A is Dirk Nowitkzi during his 2006-07 MVP Season
Player B is LaMarcus Aldridge this season
Player C is Karl Malone during his 1996-97 MVP Season
Player D is Charles Barkley during his 1992-93 MVP Season
Player E: To be announced

Like I was, I’m sure that you’re surprised to see that Aldridge isn’t as far off statistically as you’d believe he would be.

C: Most impressively, against the other seven playoff teams in the Western Conference Aldridge has upped his per game averages slightly (25.4 points and 12.0 rebounds) and led the Blazers to a 9-8 record in those seventeen games. That includes five 30 point games, eight 25-10 games, and two 20-20 games. In simpler terms, Aldridge brings it on the big stage.

5: San Antonio Spurs
Is this the season we can stop worrying about the Spurs in the playoffs?
Would you be comfortable writing the Spurs off? I know that I’m not. Not even Kawhi Leonard’s broken hand, Tim Duncan’s age, Tiago Splitter’s stupid contract or Tony Parker’s “variety of maladies” could make me completely give up on them. Sure, there will come a time when picking the Spurs isn’t the savvy move. I’d rather stick with them until they prove me wrong than get out before my heart is broken. It’s like the exact opposite of what you’re supposed to do in a relationship.

On a semi-related note, I once called the Big Three Era Celtics the Michael Myers of the NBA, but the Spurs actually fit that description much better. Think about it: San Antonio has been cranking out Finals appearances and 50 win seasons since 1999. That’s a 15 year window of relevance… unprecedented for an NBA team. Michael Myers has been a killing machine since 1978—well actually, it was 1963 when he killed for the first time, but let’s not get too bogged down in the details. He’s killed probably hundreds of innocent people and been near death a dozen or so times. He just doesn’t go away. For eight movies Michael Myers was the dominant horror movie killer. After Halloween Resurrection it looked like Michael Myers might finally be dead, along with the franchise. But just a few years later Rob Zombie’s reboot breathed new life into the series. So maybe it’s more accurate to compare the Spurs to the film series as a whole rather than its cold, evil, and possibly nonhuman killer.

February 18, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers power forward Blake Griffin (32) grabs a rebound against the San Antonio Spurs during the first half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

4: Los Angeles Clippers
Who deserves the most credit for the Clippers strong start?
Let’s split this Clippers Credit Pie up four ways:

DeAndre Jordan gets 10% of the Clippers Credit Pie: He was a so-so rebounder and late-game atrocity last season, and came into this season as an improved player all across the board. He leads the league in rebounding with over 14 per game (nearly double his average last season) and is currently 4th in the NBA in blocks per game.

Chris Paul gets 25% of the Clippers Credit Pie: A month and a half ago I would’ve given Chris Paul the biggest slice of pie, but he went down on January 3rd and the Clippers did just fine in his absence. The Clippers were 23-12 after their January 3rd game against Dallas and went 12-6 without him in the lineup. I’m not going to attempt to stupidly say that the Clippers are better off without Paul or even just as good, but if we’re giving guys credit for a 37-19 start, Paul can’t get so much when he’s missed a third of the season so far and Los Angeles kept winning at the same rate without him.

Doc Rivers gets 25% of the Clippers Credit Pie: One of the few coaches that matter in the NBA. It can’t be an accident that guys like DeAndre Jordan, Jordan Crawford, J.J. Redick and the next guy up are all having career years.

Blake Griffin gets 40% of the Clippers Credit Pie: Meet Player E. You can continue to say that Blake Griffin is ‘just a dunker’ if you’d like, but you wouldn’t be correct. Blake Griffin is becoming the player we hoped he would be before our eyes. My suggestion is to enjoy it.

3: Indiana Pacers
2: Miami Heat
Who is going to win the Eastern Conference?
Probably the most intriguing question basketball fans could debate right now. You could argue for either answer of this question and I’m not sure I could find a way to disagree with you. The Pacers got off to a dominant 33-7 start, but have since come back down to earth, dropping six of their last fourteen. Even though they’re still the best defensive team in the NBA by a wide margin—so good in fact that they are getting some much deserved comparisons to the 2003-04 Pistons—it has to be a little worrisome to see superstar Paul George even out after a scorching hot first half of the season. Equally worrisome would have to be the Miami Heat and perhaps more importantly, LeBron James coming into form after what most experts and fans alike would lead you to believe was a sluggish start to the season.

Not that there is any proven correlation of the sort from season to season, but last season at this time Miami was in the early stages of ripping off 27 straight wins, and a similar run might be in the works. In February the Heat are 6-1 (six of those games on the road) and their only loss was a head-scratching defeat in Utah. Miami hasn’t had the luxury of consistent play from Chris Bosh, consistency with the starting lineup, or a consistent stream of games played from Dwyane Wade… but the consistently excellent LeBron James is keeping the Heat among the league’s elite. If I were a betting man I’d count on a late season push for MVP from LeBron and a closer race for the best record in the Eastern Conference than most would expect.

One last note: I asked my girlfriend (a basketball viewer since last May when she started rooting for the Pacers just to bug me) for her input on the Heat. She coldly said, “The Heat suck. It’s over.” An astute observation, but I think she’d be more useful answering questions about Chemistry or Anatomy.

1: Oklahoma City Thunder
Is it true that for four days I had the number one team in my power rankings labeled “Kevin Durant” without realizing it?
This is a fact statement. I finally caught myself on my final run-through of the list before I started each of the write-ups. It might as well be Durant’s name there. This has been the Slim Reaper’s season—yeah, I’m going with the Slim Reaper nickname until it goes out of style—and in four months’ time it might be Kevin Durant’s the Thunder’s championship.